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This one has provoked much heated argument, not least because the official
definition of a city is now out of step with the traditional definition of
a city and there is a certain amount of politics associated with what is
a city and what isn't and historically differs from the use of the term
From the time of David I (12th C) the term city (or civitas) was introduced
from England initially from the association with episcopal seats. However
unlike England, the word city was conferred on every town with a cathedral
no matter what its importance, trading rights or size. Later a city might
acquire burgh status (e.g. Dunblane) or Royal Burgh status (Elgin), however
the two are independent - there were 68 Royal Burghs in Scotland at the time
of their formal abolishment in 1975.
There is no indication that at any time from the 12th century up to the 21st
century when city status was conferred on Stirling and Inverness, that the
title of city confers any special rights, privileges or status. It appears
to have been exclusively an honorific title and a matter of civic pride
for the inhabitants of the town and recognition by the monarch. It also
gave a certain importance to towns that were not burghs or royal burghs
and differentiated them from ordinary villages.
There is a claim that Dunblane was granted city status by James IV
in 1500 when he ruled Scotland from the nearby Royal burgh of Stirling. I
welcome evidence of how this was conferred as it has so far been difficult
to trace. There is a possible explanation that 1500 was about the time
James IV spent quite a lot of time with Margaret Drummond, possibly
marrying her in private. However, in order to block this and make way for
his marriage to Princess Margaret of England, Margaret and her two sisters
were poisoned in 1501 and all three got a magnificient send off in the
Cathedral where they lie to this day. So perhaps Margaret was Dunblane's
reason for being made a city and equally for evidence being hard to find.
This story does not explain why in 1150 when Dunblane's Bishopric was
founded that the town was not granted city status then and had to wait
A much more plausible explanation is that of the 13 pre-reformation cathedral
sites in Scotland, 11 of which were in towns, the term city was often used
to refer to the town - see the letter from Pope Benedict XIII of Avignon,
September 10, 1403, which refers to "the people of the city and diocese"
The "rank" of medieval Scottish towns was thus:
Village (lowest); City (village with a cathedral, honorific title), Burgh (legal status) and finally Royal Burgh (legal status)
The 11 towns, some of which use the term city today were: Old Aberdeen,
Brechin, Dornoch, Dunblane, Dunkeld, Elgin, Fortrose, Glasgow, Kirkwall,
Saint Andrews and Whithorn
The remaining two cathedrals were at Iona (seat of the Bishopric
of the Isles) and Lismore.
It is unclear whether initally city status was conferred by the monarch or whether it was simply a term to describe the seat of a bishop. However, over time, city status is something granted by the monarch and there is not only a gap between a cathedral being founded but also the creation of cities where there is no cathedral. By the time of the 17th century there is a clear documented gap. Charles I founded the Bishopric of Edinburgh in 1633 but the earliest recorded instance of Edinburgh being called a city dates from 1687. There is also Stirling which became the first Scottish city, historic or modern, to not have a cathedral.
By the 19th century a number of Scottish towns are calling themselves
cities but it appears that there is no record of how this was
officially conferred. The first record appears to come via a Royal
Charter granted to Dundee, on 26 January 1889.
The 1929 Local government Act created three different categories of burgh one of which was cities and this list was Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. Only Dundee seems to have a Royal Charter, the rest are Royal Burghs which have been known as cities since medieval times. So much for the smaller towns which had equal claim to the title.
By 1972, the "Municipal Year Book" gave the
list of Scottish cities as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth and Elgin. It is unclear why Perth appears in
this list when Perth has never been a cathedral city and why Elgin is listed and none of the other cathedral cities are.
By 1975 the former Burghs and Royal Burghs lost their ancient rights. Thus city status which formerly served to differentiate a village from a place with a cathedral now became the most sought after honour which could be bestowed on a town.
The situation we have today is thus:
Two places with a cathedral which were never a city (Iona, Lismore)
11 places with a cathedral and associated settlement which became known as cities from the 12th century. Old Aberdeen, Brechin, Dornoch, Dunblane, Dunfermline, Dunkeld, Elgin, Fortrose, Kirkwall, St Andrews, Whithorn. Many of these places still use the term city in various contexts, e.g. "City and Burgh of Dunblane", "Brechin City (Football)".
Perth which is refered to as "The fair city" although it is unclear
when the city term originated.
3 major towns (Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen) which hold city status from medieval times and which enjoy official city status today.
4 towns which have been granted city status by a Queen:
Dundee: Royal Charter, 26 Jan 1889.
Inverness: Royal Letters Patent, 18 December 2000, for the millenium. Stirling: Royal Letters Patent, 14 March 2002, for the Golden Jubilee. Perth, 14th March 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee.
There are no further plans to grant city status for the time being.
These latter 7 form the Official List of Cities as recognised
by the Scottish Government. However it is unclear what the grounds
are for this list when only 3 appear to have documentary
evidence of city status. It is also unclear why as recently
as 1972, Perth and Elgin were recognised as cities but are no longer
and why the ancient cathedral towns are not recognised as cities.
However, any town which historically called itself a city is still
free to do so. The only difference is that they are not on the
government's Official List Of Places We Officially Acknowledge As
Cities. It is also expecially odd as Dunfermline discovered that
in Medieval times it was called a city and on 16th September 2000
pulled out of the competition to award millenium city status on
the basis that it already was one, a fact recognised by the
Scottish Executive at the time (now known as the Scottish Government).
Why it should then be excluded from the official list simply seems
As a result, the 7 Official Cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow,
Aberdeen, Dundee, Stirling, Inverness and Perth now seem to have an
elite club and whilst fine for those places does seem to play down the
important Scottish tradition and status accorded to many other
towns and there is no clear explanation as to how this list was
arrived at other than a mixture of recent Royal charter or letters
patent, or being a big town with a cathedral. The only Scottish town
today with an Anglican cathedral that doesn't have city status is
I wrote to the OED regarding the use of the term "City"
and the term "High School" which I also felt to be wrong as regards Scotland:
Oxford University Press wrote back to me and said:
"I agree with you that the definitions of 'High School' and 'city' may
be misleading in respect to Scotland, and we will consider revising
them at the earliest opportunity."
Cathedral: The principal church of a diocese in which is to be
found the bishop's throne or cathedra
Civitas: The name civitas was applied by the Romans to each of
the independent states or tribes of Gaul; in later times it adhered
to the chief town of each of these states, which usually became
afterwards the seat of civil government and of episcopal authority.
The term later meant "a centre of civilized living".
Burgh: Conferring Burgh status gave a town self-government.
Burghs had special trading privileges, which were very important to
the prosperty of the town and its inhabitants. Burghs were
represented in parliament.
Royal Burgh: (or King's Burgh). Had no superior above them except
the King. This was the highest status which could be conferred on
a town. Royal burghs had a monopoly on foreign trade. They also had
more representation in parliament than non-royal burghs. Often the
Royal Burghs were sea ports or had some close connection with royalty
(e.g. Linlithgow and its palace)
The Burghs' trading rights were abolished in 1832 and the Burghs
themselves in 1975.
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